Bob Woodward's latest blockbuster book, "State of Denial," is being sold on its bogus "revelation" that President Bush has been deceptive about poor security conditions in Iraq. Yes, Bush has emphasized the positive, but if he didn't, who would amid all the defeatism? Lately, even Bush has used dire language to describe Iraq, calling the security conditions in Baghdad "terrible" and a "crisis."
The most important aspect of Woodward's book isn't this "news," but the insight it gives into how the U.S. government has arrived at such a middling, uninspired campaign in Iraq — just enough not to win and just enough not to lose. As State Department adviser Philip Zelikow thought after a visit to Iraq in 2005, in Woodward's words, "There was too much barely coping, just getting by and making incremental improvements."
We have been barely coping because we have never made a decision to go all-out, partly due to the restraining influence of Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld. Oddly, given the way he has become a hate-figure for Democrats, it is Rumsfeld who is perhaps closest to the Democrats' preferred Iraq strategy as any other major figure in the Bush administration.
Rumsfeld is not interested in trying to win the war outright, so much as handing the effort over to the Iraqis. According to Woodward, "Rumsfeld said strongly and repeatedly, the Iraqis need to be given the chance to fail and fall on their faces, and only then would they pick themselves up, dust themselves off and come up with solutions."
He has tried to head off anything more robust than letting the Iraqis fend for themselves. In October 2005, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice began to describe the U.S. approach in Iraq as the classic counterinsurgency operation of "clear, hold and build" — referring to the clearing of Iraqi insurgents from a territory and then its securing and rebuilding. Rumsfeld was outraged. Woodward writes that Rumsfeld believed, "It was wrong to say that the United States' 'political-military strategy' was all about what the U.S. would do and not what the Iraqis would do."
This was a constant tension between Rice and Rumsfeld. She wanted to do more; he wanted to do less. They clashed over the creation of Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Iraqi provinces because Rice wanted the military to provide security and Rumsfeld wanted it handled by private contractors. They argued over security for Iraqi oil infrastructure, with Rice wanting more U.S. involvement and Rumsfeld less. Generally, the result has been a down-the-middle compromise, with the U.S. neither overwhelming our enemies nor letting the Iraqis sink or swim.
If Rumsfeld had had his way, we might have had one foot out the door already. In a meeting earlier this year in Baghdad, Rumsfeld raised the issue of reducing U.S. troop levels with Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Maliki was shocked. "It's way too earlier to be talking about that," he said. Rumsfeld's strategy isn't outlandish in theory, but the fact is that the Iraqis haven't yet proven they are up to the burden he wants to place on them.
The secretary of defense has a tacit ally in minimizing the U.S. commitment in Iraq in top U.S. military commanders. Gen. John Abizaid believes that, according to Woodward, "the U.S. military had done all it could" in Iraq. Asked by his friends his strategy for winning, Abizaid responded, "That's not my job." When the general visited Rep. John Murtha, the cut-and-run Democrat, Abizaid put his fingers close together and said, "We're that far apart."
So it is that Bush's stalwartness in the Iraq War never quite seems to be matched by the means he applies on the ground. His administration has been riven by debilitating divisions on Iraq for too long. Bush should appoint an Iraq czar, whose charge it is to do everything possible to win at this late hour, and who will have every resource of government at his disposal. Lest the next Woodward book cover how the U.S. handled its ignominious exit.